Interpretation of Ancient Texts and Social Implications
- Basic Issues
Religion makes a major contribution to the social fabric of society. Religion has potential to influence society’s approach to science, government, gender, economics, violence, and many other social issues. Most major religions have sacred texts which reinforce and perpetuate the belief systems and behaviors of their followers. Sacred texts are typically ancient texts which pose some unique obstacles in interpretation. The manifestation of religious extremism is one of those issues that deeply affects our world. Because religion contributes so heavily to society, extra prudence in interpretation is critical. Some approaches to Biblical interpretation have proven insufficient to provide an understanding appreciative of the ancient context and provide relevant meaning for today. A proper interpretive literary theory along with basic literary skills will help us to view this, and other ancient texts, in a healthy productive way.
In this study I will focus on the Bible rather than the texts of other religions and allow each religion to focus on interpreting its own texts. I will address the history of interpretive approaches leading up to current trends and then propose an interpretive literary theory. We will then examine a sample of texts to apply this theory.
With religious texts, including the Bible, the issue of authorship is critical; what is implied by the concept of divine inspiration? The root of interpretive problems begins with assumptions that we make about what a divinely authored text should be.
+ Some people assume that if the Bible is a text inspired by the creator of the universe then it should contain accurate scientific information.
+ Some assume that an all knowing God will provide accurate history and therefore the Bible should be a history book.
+ Because the Bible gives social codes for Israel the nation, some assume that the Bible gives a plan of government for all societies.
+ Some assume that the Bible came to people in such a way that it is not affected by cultural influences.
Therefore, the assumptions we begin with affect our approach, and approach the interpreter begins with will determine all perceptions as progress is made through any text, and so it is this issue of approach that we should address first.
2b. Historical Survey of Approaches
In the 4th century the scholar Augustine set the tone for much of western Christianity’s scholarship. He had a background in philosophy and like most of the Hellenized Roman world was influenced by Plato. We can observe from a sample of his writing the philosophical logic he employed, “But if that is true, how could there be days before there was time, if time began with the course of the lights, which Scripture says were made on the fourth day?” (Augustine and Teske, 149). We see in his use of western analytics that all sense of mystery and myth are gone.
The 16th century birth of the Age of Reason with its focus on inductive logic, by Francis Bacon, and deductive logic, by Rene’ Descartes, (Perry 287) led the way to the enlightenment era wherein reason reigned. The Age of Reason had a profound influence upon religion. Peet Van Dyk notes a correlation between this era of reason and a fundamentalist approach to Bible interpretation, “The earlier roots of modernism can be found in the humanistic rationalism of the sixteenth-century Renaissance, which was a kind of intellectual orthodoxy. It is therefore not surprising that it emerged simultaneously with its religious counterpart, Christian orthodoxy – with its strong fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible” (166). If the culture we are immersed in is one of scientific logic then it is probable that we will project that paradigm upon our interpretive approach to the Bible and place expectations upon the text for which it was not designed.
The postmodern era of literary criticism has also influenced Bible interpretation. This approach is known for minimizing the author’s intended meaning and emphasizing the receptor’s impressions. An example of postmodern eco-critical theory focuses upon the serpent in garden of Genesis, “It constructs and confuses the boundaries between male and female, God and nature, and humanity and nature. It can regenerate without sex. It is a wild animal with divine knowledge who takes part in the creation of human society. Thus, the serpent provides interpretive resources for a vision of ecological justice.” (Walker-Jones). This approach does not seriously consider the cultural setting, or message the authors intended. Van Dyk says of the postmodern approach, “It is a rejection of any hierarchy, narrative closure or any need to stress the authority of an author” (p. 167). Today’s critical theories are certainly valuable in their proper context, but they are not best suited to the art of interpretation; “to give the meaning of” or “to understand in a particular way” (Steinmetz).
- Hypothesis: The Author Centered Approach
Let us consider principles for an interpretive theory which both understand the ancient text and provide meaning for modernity. I propose an author centered approach in which seeking the author’s intended meaning and message is essential. In “Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible” Carolyn Sharp states, “The vexed matter of authorial intention lies at the heart of current debates about reading. Many interpreters consider the “author” to be long dead and rightly unmourned. But for many others— myself among them— a nuanced notion of author remains essential, even as our view of textual meaning becomes enlivened by an increasingly sophisticated understanding of contextual factors that shape interpretation.” (p. 2). This principle is at odds with much modern literary criticism, but it is essential for interpretation and actually a very basic principle we each use daily. For example if two notes are left for me by my spouse it is important that I distinguish between the one intended as a shopping list and the one intended as a love letter. And it is usually very simple to discern which one is a list and which one is for romance. If I am reading a legal contract it is essential that I understand it correctly and not just “my impression” of what it means. Author intention is essential!
A- Assumptions: The author centered approach mandates that we be willing to relinquish assumptions based upon our cultural projections. For those that claim that the Bible should be a science or history textbook they need to ask themselves if the author’s intention is primary or their own needs. The book “Archaeology and Bible Interpretation” states, “Its many authors wrote to meet the needs of their own times rather than our own. The historians among them wrote history as they saw it, and they presented the past of Israel in terms designed to meet their own political or religious agenda, not our agenda. Divine inspiration may have led them to write better than they knew, but nevertheless they were writing as human beings for their own human situation,” (Bartlett p. 1). When Genesis speaks, it speaks of the world known to those writers, “it is inappropriate to impose our modern ontology onto the mental constructs of the ancient world” (Walton p. 151). If the author of Genesis had intended to write a book on the science of creation, he or she could have done that, but evidently that was not the intention of the author. Walton confirms, “I am constantly amazed at how difficult it is for us moderns to set aside our cultural preconceptions in order to begin to think in new ways” (p. 198). Then Walton considers the social impacts of interpretation,
“These conclusions have significant ramifications for the public discussions and controversies of our time, including those concerning the age of the earth, the relationship between Genesis and science, the interpretation of the biblical text in relation to evolution and Intelligent Design, and the shape of public science education” (p. 199).
B- Not Hyper Rational: I propose that it is reasonable to accept the truth that we humans have limited knowledge, which realization then leads us to embrace a sense of mystery. Van Dyk makes a similar proposal with his use of the term “fuzzy logic” which he adapted from scientists who were encountering abstractions. He explains, “fuzzy logic does not really advocate illogical, irrational, or inexact thought, but that it is a serious effort towards a more accurate description of reality” (166). We modern rational humans may believe ourselves capable of understanding everything. But we do not understand, nor do we need to understand everything. I do not mean to disregard rational thinking; rational reasoning is a gift of creation. The purpose I am writing this paper is for the sake of reason. Hyper-rational is the insistence on knowing and proving everything; which is unreasonable. Hyper-rational thinking is to force all texts into the scrutiny of modern science. Faith itself is a mixture of reason and dismissal of reason. Reason leads us up to the door, but faith opens the door. With this approach we interpret texts with a sense of mystery appropriate to their genre.
C- Culture: Cultural context is part of an author centered approach. If we care for the author’s intended message we will surely consider issues of cultural setting; values, customs and literary styles. The text may have universal meaning but to truly capture that meaning the first consideration is what it meant to the original audience. For example consider the laws given to Israel. If we fail to accept that those were given to a special people for a specified time and hastily attempt to apply them to modern governments we create serious problems. The text still has great significance to modern man but first we need to understand what it meant to the original audience. Those that do not consider cultural context will have difficulty reconciling the changes in society and view all social issues as ones of absolute values.
D- Artistic: I propose an artistic approach to the text the same way we would approach any other text. Robert Alter, in an essay reviewing “The Literary Guide to the Bible” points out that our history of rigorously analyzing the Bible has “had the effect of setting up a sharp divide between the Bible and literature” (Alter 82). If the interpreter begins with an appreciation of the artistic elements of a piece the benefits will surely follow. In a review of “The Artistic Dimension: Literary Explorations of the Hebrew Bible” Johnson says, “an interpreter’s first port of call ought to be the literary analysis of a text” (Johnson 315). An artistic approach can appreciate genre and employ basic skills to discern that which is intentionally historical and that which is not. An artistic approach appreciates the use of poetic imagery or metaphor and does not seek to distort those into hard facts.
- The Text:
The modern Protestant Bible is a collection of 66 writings, written over a period of approximately 1,000 years, written by many authors, woven together with unifying themes that makes it cohesive. There are several genres used; historical narratives, fictional narratives, songs, poetry, proverbs, letters, and apocalyptic literature. Chapter and verse which hinders natural reading was added a few centuries ago. Brevity will only allow a sampling of key Bible passages here. The opening lines of the Bible are:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without form and void,
and darkness was over the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good” (English Standard Version, Genesis 1:1-3).
This pattern of creation continues for six days and each time God approves the creation as good. On the sixth day God creates animals including humans, but separates out the humans as unique,
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. / And let them have dominion…’
So God created man in his own image, / in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26, 27).
As we approach this text let’s take a clue from the “Star Wars” opening line, “A long time ago in a galaxy far away” (Lucas). This opens up our imagination to the possibility that anything could happen. Reading the opening lines of the Bible is similar, if read with a healthy imagination. There is a poetic structure which indicates that the genre is not science or history. There are six days of creation and a seventh day of rest, which is the focal point.
Day 1: verb: separate
Elements: dark/ light, evening/morning
“It was good”
|Day 4: verb; fill, govern
Elements: stars, moon, sun
Condition; space of day 1 filled
“It was good”
|Day 2: verb: separate
Elements: water below/water above
Condition: empty expanse
“It was good”
|Day 5: verbs; multiply and fill
Elements: birds and fish
Condition: water and expanse of day 2 filled
“It was good”
|Day 3: verb; gathering into separate areas
Elements; sea/dry land;
Condition: empty landscape; plants begin
“It was good”
|Day 6: verbs: be fruitful, multiply, dominion
Elements: animals, including humans
Condition: earth full
“It was very good”
Humans blessed with special role
7th Day; God rests
(implication that temple for Creator and creatures is complete and all is well)
My understanding of the Bible and its cultural context is that the Bible reflects the culture it was written in and yet stands out as unique. The significance of the Genesis creation account is seen in contrast to surrounding cultures. In Egypt and Mesopotamia the physical elements; rivers, moon, and stars, were worshiped, but Genesis presents a creator being who gives these items. The message to the Hebrews would be to worship the creator, not the gifts. Another example of cultural context and significant meaning is the role given to all humans as governors, “Unlike its Babylonian counterpart, the Hebrew Creation account of Genesis 1 indicates that God gave the power of earthly rule to adam – not to the king or emperor, but simply to “mankind” (Pagels).Genesis endows all humanity with nobility.
Genesis gives us foundational understanding for life. It helps us understand our place before our Creator and in the created order. Genesis proclaims that the creation is good and that life is good. Among many world religions this is totally unique. Many world religions blame the physical elements as being corrupt; that the spiritual world is pure but the physical world is negative. Many world religions blame emotions and women as the weakness that corrupts humanity. But Genesis proclaims sex, emotions, male/female relations as good! Life is good and all the things we enjoy; music, art, science, baseball, it is all good and to be enjoyed. It proclaims that humans were created as incredibly fantastic beings with incredible potential! This is a great place to start the Bible. It is our foundation for understanding the rest of the Bible. People who focus on proving it as science or history often overlook these foundational aspects.
A social issue that is often linked to these passages is gender equality. It is significant to note that Genesis presents both male and female as created equal in the image of God. Even though the culture gave males the social responsibility of leadership, it is not possible to use this passage to make females a lesser being. A passage often misunderstood is Genesis 3:16, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” God is speaking to the man and woman after they chose disobedience in the Garden of Eden. This statement is not prescriptive of how things were intended to be, but a descriptive statement on how horrible things will be because humanity does not live in harmony with the created order. The universal questions of the humanities have been, “Why is there strife, suffering, and pain in this world? Why are men and women in contention?” Genesis is speaking to these philosophical questions by showing that humanity suffers because of disharmony with the Creator. Because of careless interpretation, this passage has often been used to justify oppression of women.
With careful interpretation we can see that these texts are not appeals to the scientific mind, but are appeals to the heart. From them we understand the role of humanity within creation and humanity’s relationship to the Creator. Today’s scientists and philosophers are apparently coming to reconciliation, “While science tells us what is and what can be, it cannot tells us what should be. Questions about what should be are in the realm of religion, ethics, policy, and philosophy” (Berg, Hager, & Hassenzahl, 18). Extremism or fanaticism comes in many forms and so the proper interpretation of religious texts is a mandatory safeguard against perpetuating unhealthy thinking. There truly is a way to interpret the Bible using an author centered approach and basic literary tools that will help us appreciate its deep literary texture, rooted in its original culture, and find relevant significance for us today.
Alter, Robert. “Frank Kermode’s Literary Bible.” Critical Quarterly 54.1 (2012): 81-87. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
Augustine, Teske R. J.. On Genesis. Baltimore, US: Catholic University of America Press, 1990. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 April 2016.
Bartlett, John R., ed. Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation. London, US: Routledge, 2002. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 April 2016.
Berg, L. R., Hager, M. C., & Hassenzahl, D. M. (2011). Visualizing environmental science. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Johnson, Benjamin J. M. “The Artistic Dimension: Literary Explorations Of The Hebrew Bible.” Reviews In Religion & Theology 21.3 (2014): 314-316. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
McClenahan: acknowledgment of Tom McClenahan instructor of Old Testament at Salt Lake Theological Seminary, who taught me these principles.
Pagels, Elaine. “The Politics of Paradise: Augustine’s Exegesis of Genesis 1-3 Versus That of John Chrysostom”. The Harvard Theological Review 78.1/2 (1985): 67–99. Web…
Sharp, Carolyn J.. Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible. Bloomington, IN, USA: Indiana University Press, 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 19 April 2016.
Star Wars. Dir. George Lucas. Lucasfulm, 1977. Film.
Steinmetz, Sol, and Carol G. Braham. Random House Webster’s Dictionary. New York: Ballantine, 1993. Print.
The Holy Bible English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. Print.
Van Dyk, Peet J. “A Fuzzy Interpretation of the Bible: Going Beyond Modernism and Postmodernism.” Religion and Theology 9.3-4 (2002): 163-82. Web.
Walker-Jones, Arthur. “Eden For Cyborgs: Ecocriticism And Genesis 2–3.” Biblical Interpretation 16.3 (2008): 263-293. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.
Walton, John H.. Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology. Winona Lake, IN, USA: Eisenbrauns, 2010. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 31 March 2016.